Many of the backpackers I’ve met in Guatemala had decided to skip both Honduras and El Salvador and head directly to Nicaragua (because of safety concerns) so I was interested to see what these two countries were actually like.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America with a typically turbulent history involving military coups and Cold War politics. The latest political crisis was in 2009 when the military stopped the then president defying the courts, and it sounds like they are still dealing with these issues. Honduras is a key country in the drug trade between South America and the U.S. and has a huge gang problem. As a result it has the highest murder rate in the world, almost double that of Venezuela, the next highest. Other crimes are also widespread and I heard a few stories of backpackers being robbed of everything whilst using the local chicken buses. It’s advisable to use one of the big tourist class bus companies for long distance travel (such as Hedman Alas) and to avoid travelling at night. Tourism is concentrated mainly around Copan Ruinas on the border with Guatemala and the Bay Islands, with many people flying directly there. I did meet some people who had travelled to several other places without any issues, so I think that it is not as bad as everyone says. That said, partly due to time constraints, I only visited these two places.
Copan Ruinas is the site of Honduras’ best set of Maya ruins. Although not as big or impressive as the ruins at Tikal and Yaxha in Guatemala, Copan makes up for it with the large number of rock carvings found throughout the ruins, something which the Guatemalan ruins generally lack. The highlight is the huge carved staircase covered in hieroglyphs recording the lineage of the ruling dynasty, but you find interesting carvings all over the site. It’s definitely worth a visit if this interests you, although a few people I met enjoyed Tikal more and felt that Tikal was much more impressive, whereas I found Copan to be much more interesting. The museum in the town has some really interesting artefacts found in and around the site.
The small little town of Copan Ruinas itself was not at all what I was expecting, and is well worth a stop over. There are some great little restaurants around the town and I stayed at a nice cheap hostel which is part of the ViaVia restaurant & hostel group. My favourite restaurants were San Rafael, which makes 16 different types of cheese, great coffee and delicous chilli sauces, and Sol de Copan, a microbrewery and Bavaian restaurant which had the nicest food and beer I’ve has so far in Central America.
From there I headed to the Bay Islands off the Carribean Coast, Honduras’ main tourist area, with a brief stop-over in the town La Ceiba on the way. I started in Utila, which is where all the backpackers head to do their scuba courses as it’s meant to be one of the cheapest places to do it. As a result the small island has a bit of a party vibe with several cheap and lively bars and restaurants and many dive schools. I did six dives and was a little disappointed with the dives. Although the coral structures were really beautiful, there wasn’t as much life as I saw in Belize. I did see a couple of sea horses, some turtles, a mackerel and some eagle rays. My next stop was the much bigger and more touristy island of Roatan. Roatan is much more developed, with lots of big resorts, and seems to be a popular spot for American tourists and for cruise ships. I stayed in West End, which is the closest thing to a backpacker area in Roatan. The diving here was really good, and is probably the nicest diving I’ve had on this trip. This is mostly because of the dive guide I had, Bryan from Sun Divers, who I’d been told is crazy about macro stuff (i.e. all the small creatures), which I also love. I was also lucky to dive in a small group, including one day where it was just Bryan and myself. We were able to dive some non-coral sites that are really good for macro and which are never dived on normal trips. I’d have loved to have done more dives in Roatan, but I’d booked a trip to Cayos Cochinos, one of the other Bay Islands. In the four dives and the bit of snorkelling I did in Roatan I saw banded coral shrimp, golden coral shrimp, squat anemone shrimp, pederson cleaner shrimp, spotted cleaner shrimp, decorator crabs, flame box crab, yellow line arrow crab, neck crab, mantis shrimp, head shield slug, juvenile gray angel fish, gold spotted moray, frogfish, a searobin, juvenile pompano, two tiny pipe horses, lots of big groupers and a few unidentified nudibranchs. I was impressed with Sun Divers in general, and their equipment was some of the best rental gear I’ve dived with.
My final stop in the Bay Islands was a two day trip to Cayos Cochinos, a small group of three islands and several cayes. Normally you need to stay at the fairly fancy resort on one of the islands but I found a guy who does cheap multi-day trips starting from the mainland. We got to sleep on a tiny little Caye with just a few basic structures, no running water or electricity and some tasty local food cooked by the island caretakers. There is a small village on a neighbouring island (which you can walk to) where you can get some beer and a few handmade souvenirs, and it really feels like you have gotten far off the typical tourist trail. The diving was pretty good, with some great swim throughs and beautiful coral structures, but there wasn’t as much interesting small stuff as on Roatan. I saw a huge sleeping nurse shark (which was blocking the entrance to one of the swim throughs), a really nice snake eel, a turtle or two, a few eagle rays (including a juvenile which swims in the bay in front of the accommodation), lots of garden eels, a tiny juvenile drum and the usual array of reef fish.
From the Bay Islands I headed across to Santa Ana in El Salvador, with a stopover in San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world. This reputation has obviously had a hugely negative impact on tourism in San Pedro – the hostel I stayed at hadn’t had a guest for 30 days before I arrived. El Salvador is a small country with a typically turbulent history, including a vicious civil war which ended in 1992. Since then it has recovered economically and feels a lot more developed than Honduras. The chicken bus system in particular was pretty good and you can generally get everywhere using them. It still has a crime problem and is generally skipped by most backpackers other than the surfers who head to the Pacific beaches. I didn’t have any issues while I was there and I didn’t hear of anything from the people I met.
Santa Ana itself does not have any attractions but there are a few things to do in the surrounding area. I did a day trip up the Santa Ana volcano to see the greeny-blue lake at the bottom of the deep crater followed by a stopover for lunch at the huge crater lake, Lago de Coatepeque (like Guatemala, El Salvador is covered in volcancoes). The weather was a bit misty so we didn’t get to see the views of the surrounding countryside, but it cleared up enough for us to see the crater . We’d organised a private guide which meant we could go up earlier than the standard 11am tour and could catch the better morning weather. Lago de Coatepeque was nice for a short stop-over, but nothing fantastic. There is a place to swim in the lake to cool down after the hike. The whole trip was done using a combination of chicken buses and hitch hiking, which was fairly entertaining. The hostel I stayed at in Santa Ana, Casa Verde, was one of the best I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world. Clean, organised, friendly, good information, cheap, a nice pool and with great kitchen facilities.
After Santa Ana I headed to Juayua for two night with a group of people I met at Casa Verde. We caught a chicken bus which took about 20 minutes just to get through the small market surrounding the bus station. Every few minutes there’d be a stream of salespeople from the stalls walking through the bus selling an astounding variety of items. About halfway through I started making a list: lottery tickets, socks, sweets, fruit, biscuits, toothpaste, water, juice, meals, soap, hair accessories, nuts, vegetables, torches, batteries, superglue, washing powder, insulation tape, matches, earbuds, belts, measuring tapes, mobile SIM cards, pens (coloured), newspapers, baby clothes, clothes pegs, eggs, and key rings.
Juayua is known for its weekend food market which focuses on huge amounts of meat and includes delicacies like barbecued frog. The festival is small but good fun, with a stallowners putting out elaborately decorated plates of food out to try entice you to their stall. Well worth a stopover. Juayua is also a good place to see some of the Ruta des Flores, a string of 5 or 6 traditional towns. We visited Concepcion de Ataco as a day trip where you can do an interesting tour of the local coffee processing plant. Unfortunately we were there on a Sunday and so we didn’t get to see it in action. The town was also having a small food fair in the main square so we joined the locals for a good lunch.
My last stop in El Salvador before I headed across to Nicaragua was El Tunco, a surfing town west of the capital San Salvador. I didn’t really enjoy El Tunco that much – it rained the whole time and it felt much more touristy that the other places I’d been to in El Salvador, but the people there said that the surfing was good. There used to be a small beach but it was mostly washed away in a recent storm, and now there are mainly small to medium sized rocks.
Whilst I was in Honduras it was one year since I finished at work, and as I write this I’ve on the road for 11 1/2 months, with just over 1 1/12 weeks until I meet Anne in Colombia and 3 1/2 weeks before I’m back home in Johannesburg. Time sure has flown!
1) Cafe San Rafael, Copan Ruinas: http://www.cafesanrafael.com
3) Sun Divers, Roatan: http://sundiversroatan.com
4) Pirate Island Diving, Cayos Cochinos: http://www.pirateislandsdivers.com
5) Casa Verde, Santa Ana: http://www.hostalcasaverde.com
6) Hostal Casa Mazeta, Juayua: http://casamazeta.com